By the early 20th century, automobiles were becoming quite prevalent in Napa County, however, they were still treated as a novelty by the media. In fact, the local newspapers printed weekly reports listing the names of locals who had purchased a vehicle. These lists also included the make and model of the purchased automobile.
Regarding those sales, a mid-1919 Napa Daily Journal article also provided consumer demographics. It began, “The last year has seen a wonderful change to the rural market for automobiles,” The Journal reported, “of (the) 1,643 (new) owners (buyers),...331, or approximately 20 per-cent, are agriculturalists—farmers and ranchmen. According to the reports filed by the dealers, this is the largest percentage of cars bought by any one class.”
Ten years later, the total number of automobiles owned by Napa County residents had increased to 7,140 vehicles. The post-WWII year of 1947 experienced an even greater boom in the local car population. In fact, Napa County had its biggest vehicle registration ever in 1947. All of those vehicle registration fees generated $15,931.
With the ranks of Napa County vehicles burgeoning during the first half of the 20th century, local communities were experiencing the impacts of all those automobiles on the Napa Valley way of life. An early 1936 Journal article about the downtown Napa parking issue illustrates this point. According to the Journal, “Rigid enforcement of downtown parking laws was agreed upon by business owners and officials as one solution of Napa’s traffic problems.”
Another part of this arrangement was the business owners’ agreement stating they and their employees would not park in the two-hour curbside spaces during business hours. The affected area restricting worker parking stretched from Fourth to Pearl and Main to Franklin streets. However, they could park in a lot located between Brown, Coombs and Fourth streets.
Additional parking restrictions were implemented about a decade later. In August 1945, the first parking meters were installed along downtown Napa streets. Two years later, 1947, the first traffic signals in downtown Napa were installed at Third and Soscol, Main and Third, Jefferson and Third as well as First and Jefferson streets.
Despite the woes of those early automobile growing pains, the actual quantity of local vehicles was relatively low during those earlier decades. As a result, allied businesses, especially gas stations, tried all sorts of gimmicks to court and keep customers. A 1935 Journal article reported on one of those campaigns. According to the Journal, a local gasoline price war began when the Mohawk Company reduced its gasoline prices by three-cents to 14-cents per gallon.
Unfortunately, there were also news reports about the negative side of vehicles. For instance, in 1925, the July 4th holiday weekend auto accidents claimed seven lives. Apparently, many motorists were visitors. According to the Journal the majority of those tourists made their first leg of their excursion aboard auto ferries. The San Francisco ferry companies alone transported about 14,000 vehicles to Vallejo. From those wharves the vehicles headed for Napa and Sonoma counties. The Journal wrote, “With highways in Napa and Sonoma valleys packed...with one of the largest crowds of motorists in (the region’s) history, scores of accidents, a number of which resulted in casualties, were reported...from all sections.”
But not all local traffic incidents resulted from crowded road conditions or the usual causes as revealed in an interesting 1936 newspaper article. The Journal said, “an automobile driven by L.J. Houck of St. Helena, Napa’s electrical dealer, collided with a cow last night near Vichy Springs.”
According to Houck, “The cow, a black animal, ran across the road in front of the machine (car). I slammed on the brakes but couldn’t avoid the animal. The cow was hurled to the pavement, rolling over twice. By the time I opened the car door to investigate, the animal scampered off down the highway.”
Understandably, the cow and humans were stunned by the collision, but that was the extent of the traumas experienced. As the cow got up and ran away, the Houcks laughed with relief that everyone and the cow were fine. But that laughter ended when the extent of damage to the car was discovered. The Journal added, “(The) impact...bashed in the radiator, broke one headlight, (and) turned the other askew.”
Next week Memory Lane will continue, and conclude, the exploration of the local automotive history. Part 2 will offer accounts of high speed chases and reckless driving.